Master at Arms - An Endangered Species

"The APTC Master at Arms officers who provide leadership, supervision, guidance and mentoring to its cadre comprising the Physical and Recreational Training Instructors is likely to become a threatened species on the verge of extinction."

Master at Arms - An Endangered Species


Having read, chewed, and digested the publications by Pentagon Press under the Mission Victory India (MVI) banner launched by its Founder Editor Colonel Vinay Dalvi (Retd), it emerges that the officer's penchant for making a meaningful contribution to address and thereafter make suggestions to holistically improve the gamut of issues concerning the Indian Armed Forces is the prime driver for this laudable initiative.

The effort is unparalleled for two main reasons and which is first, to midwife an initiative which is all inclusive in its scope of the themes comprising the mission and second, to create an illustrious Advisory Board and draw upon the experience of meritorious officers of distinction and domain expertise who are the main contributors of the features compiled in the several publications of this noble thought and motivating campaign.

That the campaign continues in the form of a monthly journal is further testimony to Vinay's selfless commitment and his ability as a wordsmith of unparalleled repute.

Of the more than 250 plus features/articles/debates/discussions which is encapsulated in the six published volumes under MVI, Vinay, given his subject/domain expertise has personally articulated on a need for change of the physical fitness criteria in the selection process of potential officers, the importance which physical training and sports and games assumes in training, the need for intimate understanding of the subject by commanders at all levels and the requirement to periodically and scientifically review the fitness system which obtains in the army in particular etc.

However, unfortunately the designated Corps which is entrusted with the responsibility to constructively participate in, contribute and oversee the issues as mentioned above has been given short shrift to and a putatively step motherly treatment by the organisational hierarchy in the not too long past.

With this attitude and mindset on the part of those who are entrusted with preserving the structural and professional integrity of the Army Physical Training Corps (APTC), it is rather unlikely that much can be realised to realistically address the issues and concerns which Vinay espouses.

The APTC Master at Arms officers who provide leadership, supervision, guidance and mentoring to its cadre comprising the Physical and Recreational Training Instructors is likely to become a threatened species on the verge of extinction. If matters do not improve in a vertical and horizontal vector within the Indian Army and the APTC, the possibility of the Master at Arms officers becoming extinct is not far.

"The APTC has been in existence for the past 75 years and continues to do its assigned role through its niche hierarchical organisation comprising Master at Arms Officers and Physical and Recreational Training Instructors."

Plain speak

Professional armies the world over is seized of the importance which physical fitness and mental robustness of its soldiers has in its playbook, its training doctrine. Any complacency on the part of field armies towards this vital and critical aspect of training, which is overarching and veritably sustains and hones all other combat training skills; is loaded with dire consequences for its competency and reputation. A nation can never think of an armed force and more so an army that is only cosmetically and virtually fit.

In the sub-continent, regional and national political environment which obtains, the continuing hybrid/asymmetrical/proxy war in the North Western border and the possibility of conventional war/war by other means (WOM) in the North East, growing scourge of terrorism, looming presence of Naxal insurgency and the fast-developing Grey Zone Warfare which impact and encompass our security concerns; validates the enduring involvement of our military in present and future times. This always demands of our military and the paramilitary forces a state of readiness.

In the framework of the Indian Army, given its variegated deployment and employment and the multifarious roles assigned to it in the discharge of its primary and secondary duty, suggests a major dependence on its human resource for mission accomplishment than the latest cutting edge, fast changing weapons and equipment technology. This only because the assimilation of the technology and its use poses a greater challenge.

Given our gestation capacity to imbibe and wield the same. Therefore, notwithstanding all else in our context, the adage will remain the man behind the gun and will only incrementally change to the machine-man algorithm in the distant future.

Accordingly, this will dictate and delineate our training doctrine and continue to persist with it being the cornerstone of our philosophy. The soldier will therefore continue to remain our most enduring asset and hence deserves to be nurtured as best one can, on the triad of physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

A conventional system and structure, which was reviewed and implemented in the army about three decades back to impart physical training exists and has adequately served its functional needs in the line of duty. In fact, it was during the second Great War that given the importance of this aspect of military training, a separate and distinct Corps was carved out and raised on 1 Jul 1946.

The professional and pragmatic wisdom of the then General Staff, enabled them to grasp the need for an exclusive Corps, which has since continued to remain and plan, conduct, appraise, review, revise and modernise the evolving paradigm and technique of fitness training and evaluation in the Army.

"The APTC leadership and its instructors has often been the subject of extremely adverse perception by the army's leadership. There have been occasions when the authorities have downplayed the importance of the APTC."

The APTC has been in existence for the past 75 years and continues to do its assigned role through its niche hierarchical organisation comprising Master at Arms Officers and Physical and Recreational Training (P& RT) Instructors.

The APTC has performed with distinction and organic synergy with the combat arms/logistics branches, as service providers to a million plus strength army. As in any hierarchical organisation, the Corps is led by Officers who with their positional authority provide its instructors the necessary wherewithal, guidance, and leadership to impart training and which provides a purpose to this arrangement.

However, while this established system exists and delivers to the entire satisfaction of the end users, the APTC leadership and its instructors has often been the subject of extremely adverse perception by the army's leadership. There have been occasions when the authorities have downplayed the importance of the APTC and denied to it its due and even going to the extent of questioning its identity as a fed Corps.

In the recent past, there was a profoundly serious view taken in the matter and the structural integrity of the Corps was threatened by substituting the existing model with that of the Corps of Military Police; wherein selected officers were to be posted to PE appointments on Extra Regimental Employment (ERE).

Other than officers tenanting the appointments of the Deputy Director General (DDG), Commandant and Chief Instructor Army Institute of Physical Training (AIPT) and seven other officers in the ranks of Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel were to be retained and others either allowed the choice to revert to the parent Arm/Service or else phase out on superannuation on retirement.

It did not stop here as the suggested model aimed at hiving off 75% of P&RT instructors and similarly substituting these by selected ERE personnel. The means of identifying the 75% was to be left to the APTC and similarly these would be reverted to their Parent Unit/Arm/Service.

A board of Officers was ordered by the GS branch to examine the matter with specific terms of reference to restructure the APTC on the above-mentioned lines and the proceedings were submitted for consideration.

To use a sporting term of Boxing, the APTC was saved by the gong, which means that in a knock down in the last round of a bout, the referee's count to 10 to award a knockout is intervened into by the timekeeper and he sounds the gong/bell to finish the bout. The reader is allowed the luxury of his/her inference about what happened which saved the APTC from such ignominy and treatment at the hands of those who must essentially be its bulwark than its decimator.

While this literal insult hurled at the APTC was warded off by providential intervention, it continued to remain at the receiving end of many a step motherly attitude shown towards it by the responsible Army hierarchy and the Adjutant General (AG) and Military Secretary (MS) Branches, who did not accord it the rightful consideration it deserved. The common alibi which is offered time and time again is the overall shortfall of officers in the army.

Consequently, the strength of its Officers plummeted down to 39 against an authorisation of 69 as incorporated in the PE of MT 8/Training Centres/Command Headquarters and establishments. The Corps is running shop at 56% of its officers' authorisation and everyone down the chain of command continues making the platitudinous statement of physical training being a cornerstone of our training doctrine.

Nothing could be more irresponsible and laced with falsity on the part of those who give verbal accolades to the APTC but show scant concern for its genuine problems which impact its staffing, higher Institutionalised learning, knowledge enhancement and career interests.

The APTC is expected to perform optimally when its human resource in its officers is terribly under strength and the Corps is left on its own without organisational support to modernize and imbibe knowledge in contemporary times.

Other than the Officers Physical Training Course (OPTC) there is nothing which is institutionally catered for the growth of its officers. This has brought the officers of the Corps into a woeful state and for which the indigenous leadership is equally responsible.

The APTC senior leadership of the past, in the sixties and seventies consisted of individual sports achievers who had either achieved sporting glory individually or else were involved in sports administration and management at the national level. These officers had a standing of their own and were professionally respected for their views.

It was during the times of two such officers that the Corps got a deserving fillip to its officer strength from a clutch of 15 to 69. It was a huge leap in the right direction to give certitude to our belief that the APTC must grow vertically and horizontally and penetrate at the formative level of overseeing the training of recruits, cadets, and gentleman cadets in Regimental Centres and Pre-Commission establishments.

"OPTC, which an officer does as a Young Officer is the only institutional course for Master at Arms officers. This is an adequate testimony to the fact that the APTC continues to be treated as a stepchild of the army."

With this quantum leap in the officer’s strength, willy nilly the APTC officers became the designated sports and games officers in more than 50 Regimental Centres, where the elite athletes of the Regiment were concentrated for high performance training. This commenced the intimate involvement of these officers, whose bread-and-butter competency was combat fitness training, getting sucked into army, services, and national level sports.

It must be understood that while the Armed Forces participate in amateur sports at the national level the training and management of the sports persons demands a very professional and dedicated commitment by the officer-in-charge. This insidiously took the APTC officers away from their core competency and they started to enjoy this newfound responsibility at dire costs to physical training.

Sport can be an author of its own mystery and dark theatre. It engages emotions, it exhausts players, managers, administrators, support staff and the audiences alike and leaves its joy, pain, sting on all. It was only a matter of time when the Master at Arms officers of the Corps slowly and surely got inveigled into becoming sports managers and administrators and put their core competency into the back seat, with the tacit approval of the in-situ commander.

Sports unlike military training provides instant gratification from a win, in a time specific format of participation whereas the toil and grime of training manifests its result in the unknown future. Therefore, sports glorify the present dispensation and earns constructive laurels for those involved in its nurturing.

Hence, high performance elite sports became the front runner to bring glory during peacetime soldiering for regiments/army/services and its nurturing became a greater priority for the Master at Arms officers than physical training and its in-depth knowledge.

This hurt the APTC and slowly but surely, its officers were drawn away from applying themselves to acquiring relevant knowledge through self-study in the absence of any institutional training organised and provided by the army per se.

OPTC, which an officer does as a Young Officer (YO) is the only institutional course for Master at Arms officers. This is an adequate testimony to the fact that the APTC continues to be treated as a stepchild of the army.

Its Colonel Commandants, who is the Director General Military Training (DGMT) in an ex-officio capacity have seldom given any consideration to this critical aspect and have allowed the Corps to languish for want of genuine concern for its empowerment, which comes with knowledge acquisition, enhancement, and upgradation. It is an extremely sad and sick commentary on the treatment meted out to a Corps which is charged with a vital responsibility of keeping an army fit.

Do not Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater!

The APTC is a fed and specialist Corps having its officers join it either through inter-arms service transfer from other arms and services or else by Special List (SL) Commission or Regimental Commission. Hence, given its authorised and posted strength of officers and the long-standing deficiency of nearly 50% in its cadre has very adversely impacted its competency and confidence.

It is a matter of record that the DGMT in the past 30-40 years has never given a second thought to the fact that the APTC is not organised, trained, designed, and qualified to manage and administer elite performance sports. Despite this it has continued to be tasked with the responsibility in an ad hoc arrangement and for which it is not competent.

Let the army not be held guilty of conniving against the interest of a dynamic and vibrant Corps, by milking it to such an extent that mediocrity subsumes its contribution by ignoring the very purpose for which it was raised-to provide specialised training in the field of fitness and recreational sports to its human resource.

In one interview given by an ex-DGMT to MVI, it emerged that deserving and huge credit was given to the APTC personnel for the flawless and impeccable technical conduct of the Military World Games 2007 held in Hyderabad and Mumbai. Let me write here with an exacting sense of responsibility that it was only providential and nourished by an extreme sense of Corps pride, which enabled it.

I am personally privy to a letter written by an Army Commander to the Army Chief, wherein after the despondent performance of the Indian Contingent in the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympic Games, he suggested that the army should take upon itself the responsibility to train sportspersons to win medals in the Olympics and this gave birth to the Mission Olympics Wing under the delegated responsibility of the DDG PT and his team of officers from the APTC.

Quite a demanding and herculean task to perform and for which one has had no training or else education or else knowledge about, except by acquiring it at a personal level of interaction from those who are professionals. This is not how such matters are handled at a level where one is looking to participate at an International forum and win.

The army's leadership culture had not trained the then DGMT and the DDG PT to take a stand on such a demanding fiat and for which the Corps he headed had no idea about or else trained to handle.

The limited point which I wish to make here is that the army's leadership should not saddle the APTC with specialised responsibilities which are beyond its scope and for which it is neither organised, trained or equipped with.

Colonel Rajya Vardhan Singh Rathore's statement given to the media after he won the Silver medal in Double Trap shooting in 2004, Athens Olympics Games is very telling in the matter. He said, “My win at Athens is not because of the army's system as it exists under the Mission Olympics Wing but Despite it”.

In conclusion, I would like to write that, let the Indian Army not treat the APTC and specially the Master at Arms officers as adopted children in a family where biological children also exist and live. Decisions, which are taken with respect to anything concerning the Corps, must be driven by a systematic and analytical motivation, rather than by individual personality.

Much harm has been caused to the Corps for want of understanding as to what the purpose of the APTC is and how best its resources can be optimised for developing, maintaining, and enhancing combat fitness. Management and Administration of elite sports is not within the ambit of the Corps and its personnel.  

Therefore, the problem which remains is not to be dealt with whimsically and by calling rank to put down genuine dissent, but instead to nurture a specialised Corps such as the APTC is by treating it with dignity due towards a professional organisation.

(Brig. Sarvesh D Dangwal, VSM commissioned from IMA in 1971. Born into battle with 4 Garhwal Rifles, saw action in Jhangar, Naushera Sector in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Served in APTC for 25 years, was Comdt AIPT & DDGPT before retirement in 2008. Was instrumental in revision of entire system of PT and Testing of Army implemented in 1992 and obtaining till date. An avid reader and writer who freelances on diverse issues that impact civil society and especially those which concern the people of the hills of Uttarakhand.)

(Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India.)

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